Interior Department Releases Report Detailing $40 Billion of National Park Assets at Risk from Sea Level Rise

Office of the Secretary

Anniversary of Climate Action Plan Highlights Need for Preparations to Avoid Damages

6/23/2015
Last edited 4/26/2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In advance of the two-year anniversary of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today released a report revealing that national park infrastructure and historic and cultural resources totalling more than $40 billion are at high risk of damage from sea-level rise caused by climate change. The report was conducted by scientists from the National Park Service and Western Carolina University and is based on an examination of 40 parks – about one-third of those considered threatened by sea-level rise – and the survey is on-going.

“Climate change is visible at national parks across the country, but this report underscores the economic importance of cutting carbon pollution and making public lands more resilient to its dangerous impacts,” said Secretary Jewell. “Through sound science and collaboration, we will use this research to help protect some of America's most iconic places – from the Statue of Liberty to Golden Gate and from the Redwoods to Cape Hatteras – that are at risk from climate change.”

Specific projections of sea level rise vary by site and time, but scientists expect a one-meter rise in sea level to occur in the next 100-150 years. In some select areas of Alaska, relative sea-level is decreasing because as land-based glaciers and ice sheets melt, land mass is actually rising faster than sea-levels. Both phenomena make changes in sea-level a useful standard to assess vulnerability across the diversity of coastal area national parks.

“Many coastal parks already deal with threats from sea-level rise and from storms that damage roads, bridges, docks, water systems and parking lots,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “This infrastructure is essential to day-to-day park operations, but the historical and cultural resources such as lighthouses, fortifications and archaeological sites that visitors come to see are also at risk of damage or loss.”

Authors of Adapting to Climate Change in Coastal Parks: Estimating the Exposure of Park Assets to 1 m of Sea-Level Rise, examined 40 of the 118 national parks considered vulnerable to sea-level rise by NPS using data from many sources including the USGS Coastal Vulnerability Index. The areas studied by NPS so far have included urban areas such as Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, two of the most visited parks in the system. Results from analysis of an additional 30 coastal parks will be released later this summer. Called “assets,” the infrastructure and historic sites, museum collections, and other cultural resources of the 40 parks were categorized as high- or limited- exposure based on exposure to risk of damage from one meter of sea level rise.

More than 39 percent of assets in this subset of parks, valued at more than $40 billion, are in the high-exposure category. Low-lying barrier island parks in the NPS Southeast Region constitute the majority of the high exposure category. At Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, the current replacement value of rebuilding lighthouses, visitor center exhibits, historic structures and other areas – all of which are rated as high-exposure assets–would be almost $1.2 billion. (That value does not include billions for loss of lands and tourist income.)

More than one-third of assets in the Northeast Region are in the high-exposure category. From the Statue of Liberty in New York to the landmark structures at Boston National Historic Park and Fort McHenry in Baltimore, many of these areas have great historical and cultural significance.

As the summer vacation season begins, the ten NPS national seashores listed as at-risk on this list are popular natural beach retreats for Americans—Assateague (Md./Va.), Cape Cod (Mass.), Fire Island (N.Y.), Cape Hatteras (N.C.), Cape Lookout (N.C.), Canaveral (Fla.), Cumberland Island (Ga.), Gulf Islands (Fla./Miss.), Point Reyes (Calif.), and Padre Island (Tex.).

Although one meter of sea level rise may not seem like a lot, Jarvis explained that it would be part of a cascade of effects. “Coupled with sea level rise, big storms have that extra volume of water that can damage or destroy roads, bridges and buildings, and we saw what that looks like – again – with Hurricane Sandy in 2012,” the NPS director noted.

Many national park areas in the Northeast were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The storm shuttered the Statue of Liberty for eight months and forced National Park Service staff to remove much of the Ellis Island museum collection when the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was flooded with sea water. Those exhibits have yet to be returned while repairs continue.

The National Park Service lead scientist on coastal geology, Rebecca Beavers, said, “When we look back at Hurricane Sandy, a quick reassessment of the methodology in this report suggests that we were conservative in labelling an asset as ‘high exposure.' Although reality may deal even more harsh circumstances as Sandy illustrated, information from this report provides a useful way to help determine priorities for planning within coastal parks.”

The study is accessible through http://go.nps.gov/coastalassets.